Hearts of darkness: another voice against graded observations

heart of darkness

Written in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s most well-known work, Heart of Darkness, tells the tale of Charles Marlow, an ivory transporter, and his colonial-era journey up the River Congo. Marlow becomes increasingly obsessed with the enigmatic Kurtz, the tyrannical ‘chief’ of a station up-river who has become a ‘god-like’ figure to the people he brutalizes.

In more recent years, Conrad’s story has been accused – rightly or wrongly – of racism. For me, however, the most famous line of the novella, immortalised too in Francis Ford Copolla’s Vietnam-era movie Apocalypse Now, comes as Kurtz is dying: “The horror, the horror.” Kurtz’s final words are ambiguous: the meaning is deliberately nebulous, leaving us to interpret for ourselves. My reading, however, has always been clear: that, like Conrad’s depiction of Western ‘civilisation’, there is a dark side to all of us. We must learn to stare this in the face before it is too late.

I am very aware that this is a very dramatic opening to a blog post on education and graded lesson observation! Please hear me out. Recently, I have read a spate of fantastic posts from the big-hitters of the blogosphere – David Didau, John Tomsett and Joe Kirby to name but three – all questioning the purpose of graded lesson observation and providing us with alternative options. It was further encouraging to read this week in David’s blog that (a) Ofsted are listening to educational bloggers and (b) that Ofsted have now ruled that individual lessons will not be graded during school inspections. The momentum is gaining weight.

This is all promising, but how does it relate to Conrad and Heart of Darkness? Well, my big concern with graded lesson observations is the way that they, and the associated culture, unwittingly encourage us to hide our own ‘horrors’. If we know we are to be graded, if we know that this grade might be directly linked to performance related pay, then, for many of us, lesson observation becomes about covering up our weaknesses – our ‘hearts of darkness’ you might say. (Sorry if that sounds a little grandiose!).

Over the last few years, I will admit, I have sought to achieve ‘outstanding’ in my lesson observations. On good days I have been graded such. Yet has there been a cost to this? Have I really worked out how to become a great teacher or have I just learnt to successfully cover over the cracks? Could, impossibly, my earnest attempts at ‘outstanding’ have hindered rather than helped my students? In the spirit of veracity, here are a few of the obfuscating strategies many of us employ in an attempt to hide our weaknesses:

  • Ensure that we are teaching something ‘easy’ and covering up the fact that we know the class are already quite good at this.
  • Warning the class that someone from SLT is coming in to watch them before the lesson and expects to see PERFECT behaviour.
  • Offering future ‘reward’ lessons for a particularly good lesson.
  • Changing schemes of work around to incorporate an ‘Ofsted’-style lesson, even if this is not what the class need. (This is the worst crime as students are losing out directly.)
  • Putting all other marking and planning to one side to micro-plan a lesson over about three days.

And the list goes on… You could legitimately argue that even without graded observations, the sly amongst us might still employ such tactics. It is natural, and good for professional development, to spend longer on planning a lesson than we normally would. However, I do believe that the removal of grades would dramatically alleviate the problem. Most importantly, I think schools need to grow cultures in which we are not afraid to discuss openly our weaknesses and foibles. I would like to be comfortable enough to invite my colleagues to see me teaching my most challenging class, who are learning the material I find most challenging to teach. Then, perhaps, the feedback would be more useful.

Once again, in the interests of honesty, here are what I perceive to be my main weaknesses:

  • Poorly planned and executed explanations. Too often I have to rely on heavily-scaffolded tasks to make up for the paucity of my verbal offerings.
  •  Questioning students too much – especially when I have not given them adequate knowledge to work on.
  • Moving around the classroom too much and too nervously.
  • Offering feedback too quickly.

This is the stuff I try to cover up in observations; I would, ideally, like more feedback on this. (I am going to finally work up the courage to video myself at some point this year as I know this will help me to address some of the concerns.)

There are a couple questions – addressed well in the posts I mentioned at the start – that schools do need to answer before moving away from graded lesson observations:

1)      How would under-performing teachers be identified and monitored in the absence of grades?

2)      What alternative methods would schools use to encourage and motivate teachers to aim for the best?

       Leaders like Shaun Allison are drawing attention to the ‘bright spots’. Shaun is blogging about the great stuff he sees in lessons – here and here for instance. This is inspiring leadership as it imbues a sense of positivity – if the good things are highlighted they surely will grow.

So here is another voice – a lesser one I’m sure – to add a tiny bit more strength to the argument that graded lesson observations can be damaging. The more voices the better. Now that Ofsted are not doing it, surely schools must follow suit? My vision of an education utopia is one where our ‘bright spots’ are celebrated, and one where, finally, we can also feel confident and secure in sharing – and ultimately defeating – our ‘hearts of darkness’.

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

My problem with praise

pat pat

One of the most fulfilling yet challenging aspects of our profession is the way small daily events throw into question our deeply held beliefs or ingrained practice. Indeed, almost by the hour, my ideas are challenged and strained by small, everyday episodes to the point where they require recalibration. One such situation occurred  at a parents’ evening last week.

I would describe myself as a phlegmatic character; I keep my emotional cards well and truly close to my chest. Many of the wonderful English teachers I have worked with over the past eight years are very different, more outward, and by watching and listening to them I have learnt to be more ostensibly warm and caring. To an extent.

In 2006, during my PGCE year, I read Investigating Formative Assessment by Torrance and Prior, which has greatly influenced my career ever since. One premise I distinctly remember was that teachers should be careful not to shower praise on students; by saying ‘well done’ or ‘good girl’ we stop thinking and progression in their tracks, giving students the false impression that what they have said is enough and no further thinking is necessary. For Mr Undemonstrative here, this fitted comfortably into my worldview. A strong reason not to praise too much so that I could stay in my comfort zone.

The argument about the detrimental effects of praise is backed by extensive educational research. See Hattie and Yates here:

“Two readily identified fallacies are that (a) people learn more when’s they receive praise, and (b) people need continual praise to establish and maintain feelings of self-worth. Despite thousands of projects neither statement has any serious support. Praise makes people happier, sometimes, and in some places. It can steer you toward wanting to do certain things or induce you to stay in the field. But it does not assist you to learn.”

Exposure to this kind of evidence has made me more and more confident in my classroom style: during discussions  I probe my students, constant asking them to say more, never satisfied with their initial answers, almost always avoiding the handing out of praise . Until last Thursday, I was quite cosy in my belief that my Y11 top-set students were gaining from this approach…until I came face-to-face with Alana’s parents (I have hidden her identity).

Now Alana is a great student: articulate, perceptive, kind and thoughtful. She is a dream to teach. Yet for some reason, despite the fact that her KS3 level was the highest in the class, she seems to have slipped behind many of her peers this year. At parents’ evening, her mother shed the cold light of day on the problem:

“She has lost confidence in English. She thinks that her answers in class are not good enough and that she is letting you down. Actually, she has come home quite upset on a couple of occasions recently.”

In spite of my knowledge of the research, an uncontrollable sense of guilt overcame me. I responded in two ways: (1) I talked quite honestly about how much I valued Alana’s perceptive contributions to class discussion, and (2) I gave a trite rationale for my discussion strategy – if we were, say, in discussion in a board meeting it would be quite strange to stop mid-flow to effusively praise another board-member.

This small and seemingly insignificant event has got me thinking. At first, it was easy to find solace in the research and blame her previous teachers: ha, she has been praised so fulsomely in the past for her native ability and become so used to immediate gratification that now that the going has got tough, she has no coping strategy to fall back on. And then I tried another tact: the empathy thing. How would I like to receive little or no praise for my blog contributions? What if people at my school and on Twitter had not praised these blog posts I’ve started to write? Would I still be writing them regularly four months in? Probably not.

You see, some of us desire praise, whether we care to admit it or not. Some students, for a complexity of reasons, are more reliant on it than others. Even Hattie and Yates concede that ‘a modicum of praise’ sets a ‘pleasant environment’ in the classroom. Today, I read an interesting blog post by Alex Quigley – here – about ‘cognitive bias’, about how our decision making is rooted in our emotions. Perhaps I have taken to the ‘anti-praise’ philosophy too ardently because it fits in comfortably with my rather stoical worldview, and the fact that being ‘very nice’ sometimes makes me feel awkward!

I have written before about responsiveness, about listening to the needs of individual students. With Alana, I am planning to find subtle ways to praise her – maybe an extra word or two in her book, maybe a copy of her written work used as an exemplar on the revision website I have set up. Other students may be made of sterner stuff, yet I cannot pretend that she is not struggling and that lack of regular praise does not play its part.

I will not abandon my beliefs about praise – the research and theory remains compelling. The current thinking is that we encourage ‘the growth mindset’ by praising effort; this makes sense yet it entails a huge cultural shift that will take time to embed. Be that as it may, I find myself, once again, scratching my head and refining and rebuilding my teaching philosophy. Whenever I feel I have grasped some meaning, it slips away from me again. The endless complexity of this job is ever fascinating.


Not everyone will agree with me, but yet again I have been reminded that we need to win over their hearts as well as their minds.

Multiple models and the journey to freedom

jean brodie

To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion…”

Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

In recent months, I have been considering the importance of modelling writing – I’ve even written a couple of blog posts about it (here and here). Yet despite my fervour for modelling, in the back of my mind a nagging doubt has continued to haunt me. Could my use of models be denying students a chance to become free writers, to find their own voices, to find their own way? In the words of the inimitable Miss Jean Brodie, is my modelling an unnecessary ‘intrusion’ when I should be ‘leading out’ the latent creativity of my students?

Whether true, pure creativity exists is a philosophical question this pragmatic teacher would like to avoid for today. It is certainly true that many English teachers, myself included, have been inspired by the idea that reading and writing can set us on the path to self-expression; for a teacher to constrain this freedom is  tantamount to tyranny, we might argue. Room for thinking has been paramount to my own development as a writer – why deny it to others?

Unfortunately, however, the blunt reality presented by the literacy capabilities of many of my students has dulled some of this idealism. It has been further dented by my reading of Hattie and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of how we learn, with its persuasive emphasis on the importance of modelling and the use of worked-examples.

You see, the purposeful and explicit use of models in the classroom, whether through exemplars or ‘live’ writing, is absolutely vital, especially when our students have had deficient literacy input at home. Models provide the opportunity for our students to see how tone, structure, grammar and ideas can become knitted together in a cohesive whole beyond the sum of the parts. How can you ‘lead out’ something when these seeds have yet to be sewn?

Be that as it may, all is not lost. I believe that creativity is not inspired by sticking our heads in the sand and hoping; it can be taught, and the way to do this is simple. We model more frequently, not less, and, like Ron Berger, we immerse our students in a multiplicity of exemplars. There are three obvious types: the teacher model, the student model and the outside expert model (written by the professional writer from past or present). All should be treated with equal importance.

Before I share some ideas, let me tell you the wonderful tale of how, with a gap of several years, I witnessed one student’s writing inspire another’s. Five years ago, I taught Lucy, an incredibly gifted writer. She wrote a wonderful piece from the perspective of an aged Beatrix Potter whose thoughts and imaginings, now blighted by dementia, had become consumed by the nostalgic memories of her literary creations. Three years later, I read and discussed this piece with another class. One boy, Simon, significantly less talented than Lucy, produced a remarkable echo of her work. It told the tale of a parish vicar looking back over his life and, word by word, renouncing his faith in God. Simon had been brought up in a strictly Christian family. Writing this remarkably restrained piece, inspired in tone, content and structure by a girl he had never met, was of profound importance to a young man who may have been questioning his own faith.

So how can we use written models in the classroom in such a manner that teaches our students the technicalities of writing, yet does not unduly constrain?

Use more than one model. Time and resourcing constraints mean that, more often than not, our students are introduced to only one exemplar. This can be dogmatic. Instead, we need to show them that there are many possible paths to successful writing. Providing three or more very good but very different exemplars (perhaps just as paragraphs), and asking students to select their favourite can lead to a rich discussion that triggers inspiration in different ways.

Use teacher models in conjunction with student models as often as possible. Only two weeks ago I asked my mixed-ability Y9 class to write a letter from Much Ado About Nothings Benedick to an agony aunt. I figured that the task would be tough and so they needed to see an example first a letter I wrote from an agony aunt, this time from Beatrice. This was great for the weaker students, who captured the tone and style better than I could have imagined in their Benedick letters. Unfortunately, a few too many strong writers took the safe option by parroting my model. Luckily, not all of them did, and when I repeat the task I have a number of interesting and better – exemplars to share and critique alongside mine.

Benedick letter Jack Manger

Make sure we are constantly sniffing out new models. Like Ron Berger with his portfolios of excellence, I know I must now adopt a consistent strategy for identifying and storing models. Every time I mark a set of books, my aim is to scan at least two pieces of good quality work using the CamScanner app on my iPhone, which is then send to my Dropbox folders. Too often in the past, I have not done this and great work has been lost. If I leave it until the end of the year to collate, it never happens.  My aim now is to extend this approach across my department; as teachers we can gain fresh insights from regularly reading the great work of our colleagues’ students and, more importantly, so can our classes.

Consider the sequencing of models. The order we present models to our classes can lead to constraint or freedom. Even though we must seek to create a common conception of excellence, it is important to avoid creating a power structure where the teachers ideas are made to seem more valid than others. I find that more freedom is created when my teacher model a precise teaching tool often designed around the key grammatical concepts I am trying to introduce or key weaknesses that need to be addressed is shared before student models. Implicit in this sequence is the idea that my expectation can be achieved in a variety of ways

Use anthologies of student examples creatively. Each year in my English department we create an anthology of the best KS3 writing, which leads to a presentation evening. I keep sets of these anthologies as a teaching resource that can be used in a multitude of ways both in class and as homework before students complete their own writing.

Create degrees of separation between the model and the students’ work.Take a great example (established author/teacher/student) and then ask students to ‘plan backwards’ – write the plan we imagine the original writer designed. After this, students plan their own piece of work. This creates a greater degree of separation from the original exemplar, giving students more room to move.

Build in different entry points in mixed-ability classes. Modelling for freedom can be tricky with a mixed-ability class. In general, the more able the writer, the less we want to constrain. Heres one simple strategy for using a  model that works well.

1.    Share a first paragraph (preferably ‘live’ with the help of the class).

2.    As a whole-class shared exercise, structure a plan for the next few paragraphs (maybe six in length.)

3.    Ask stronger writers to write their own plans – using the shared one as a model – and let weaker writers (if they need to) copy out the shared plan as their own.

4.    If necessary, the very weak (or very uninspired) can copy out the first paragraph and carry on from there. All others will use their own plans – either the class plan or their own.

Model a chain of influence. Demonstrate how good writers are inspired by one another by showing how one student has taken the flavour of anothers writing and made it their own – like Lucy and Simon. Both pieces of work are shown side-by-side so that the class can consider the workings of influence and inspiration.

Plan before models are introduced. This way students can own their ideas and structures, but we can have more say over the technicalities and grammatical constructs they employ.


As the father of a two year old boy, I am now in a front row seat as his language bursts forth. It has taken time, patience, and plenty of modelling from many people to get to this stage. Over time, over years, over key stages, is it wishful thinking to imagine that a multiplicity of models might encourage written language, in all its freedom, to burst forth in our classrooms?

Related posts:

Tom Sherrington – Defining the Butterfly: Knowing the Standards to set the Standards

David Fawcett – Can I be a little better at knowing what high quality work looks like

A benchmark of brilliance


When our students arrive with us in Y7 – or Y8 if you teach in my town – they embark upon a series of tests known as ‘baseline assessments’. Invariably in English, this is some kind of writing task with little or no preparation. More often than not, students flunk it – nerves, lack of practice, uncertainty about expectations probably all play a part.

Take this example paragraph from a baseline written by one of my weaker Y8s in September:


Scorched indelibly between his eyebrows, the sharp sizzle of a level 4′ brand is all but audible. And so serial underachievement begins…

A couple of months ago this rather simple idea came to me. Why don’t we ask students, fresh in the honeymoon glow of a move to secondary school, to do something remarkable when they arrive? Why don’t we get them to look ahead, rather than look back? Why don’t we get them to create a ‘benchmark of brilliance’?

In fact, they can do this at any time, not just at the start of the year. The idea is that in every subject they will undertake a task, complete a procedure, interrogate an idea or create a product that takes them far beyond the shackles of what they think they are capable of. The rationale is, from the outset, to create confidence and to engender pride and belief.

Better late than never and inspired by Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, I decided that my Y8 students would set their benchmarks at the start of 2014. Two questions seemed pertinent before I began:

    How will I plan a scheme that helps me to bleed the absolute best out of my students?

    How will I get them to invest in the task so that they really do care about the final product?

And so I planned the following scheme:

1.    First off, we read the first three chapters of White Fang by Jack London. These provide a self-contained short-story involving two men, six huskies, a pack of emancipated, blood-thirsty wolves and a mysterious ‘she-wolf’. It’s gripping stuff, yet the main reason for reading it was as a ‘mentor text’, an idea I have gleaned from Mark Miller’s blog – here. I wanted my students to be inspired by Londons tone, style, sentence structures, themes and storyline in their own writing.

2.    Once read, we deconstructed a paragraph, looking at how London had used verbs and adjectives to personify nature, but more importantly how he had created wonderful sentences. We looked at Londons, built some together and they had a go themselves, using the principles of the sentence escalator I have written about before. Here’s how I modelled how London might have built up one of his sentences:

Screenshot 2014-02-05 21.57.24

3.    However, great sentences alone are not enough. Fluency comes from how these sentences are linked. I selected a range of sentence starters from across the three chapters. These, along with examples of how London used these stems and five generic sentence types, formed the scaffolding (see below). To create more challenge, I set a simple rule: no sentence must start with the same word.

Screenshot 2014-02-05 21.56.11

4.    Before we started writing I showed them Ron Bergers Austin’s Butterfly video see here. We discussed how it would influence our approach. I insisted that I would give them time to write and gave them a simple three paragraph structure: describe the landscape; describe a sled with huskies; describe a night-time camp fire. I explained that the final draft would provide a benchmark piece to be stuck on their folders a measure of a level of quality to continually aim for and, one day, to surpass.

5.    From time to time as they were writing, I photographed work and we critiqued it together. I would have liked more peer-critique, but I felt time was running out.

6.    When the first draft was complete, I gave formative feedback. See picture:


7.    They edited this before slowly and carefully writing up the final draft.

Heres the benchmark piece from the ‘level 4’ student I mentioned at the start of the post:


Modest, yes, but with so much more sentence control than the original baseline (even if the description of snow is a little unconventional!).  Some of the class’ work is exceptional, the best I’ve seen from Y8s. I have included a number of examples at the end of the post. Almost all worked slowly, diligently and, in many cases, with the care and attention of artists.

This task has taught me an awful lot, more than I can write about here. One important point, though, is that at no stage did I mention levels. This was not a deliberate strategy; it just turned out that way. The only success criteria I gave them were, in effect, task instructions:

      1.    Start every sentence with a new word.

2.    Aim to write lovingly and carefully constructed sentences.

3.    Take your time and aim for your very best.

Of course, the next challenge is how I get my students to replicate the quality you will see below with less scaffold. Without White Fang, without the sentence stems and without the time to write slowly and redraft, I am sure the results would have been very different. There is also a question to be raised about creativity to what extent did this task limit freedom of thought and expression? Each students work was individually crafted, but the ultimate if slightly unrealistic aim of this English teacher is to help my students find their own writing voices.

Anyhow, thats a question for another day. The demise of levels has left us with a great opportunity to focus on genuine quality. How we manoeuvre in the wake of levels so as to avoid the hulking shadow of the accountability leviathan will be absolutely crucial. Baselines have their uses, but I can’t help wondering whether genuine success lies in how we, and our students, imagine and design the future.

Here are some other example paragraphs from my Y8s. Please take the time to have a read.




Check out the editing on this one!